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Supt. Eddie Johnson announces retirement after 31 years with CPD

“I know this city. I grew up surrounded by blue-collar families that are the lifeblood of this blue-collar town,” said Johnson, who will serve through the end of the year.

With his voice cracking, CPD Supt. Eddie Johnson announced Thursday that “it’s time for someone else to pin these four stars to their shoulders.”

After leading the department for more than 3 ½ years — one of the most turbulent periods the CPD has ever seen — Johnson, 59, will retire at the end of the year.

“I’ve been doing this 31 years. It’s time,” said Johnson, flanked by his wife, a CPD lieutenant, and two sons, the elder a CPD officer, as well. “2020 will be a new year and new chapter in my life and I’m looking forward to it.”

In his farewell address, Johnson expressed gratitude to the officers under his command, mayors Lori Lightfoot and Rahm Emanuel, as well as his family.

Above all, though, he was grateful for having the trust of city residents.

“I’ve been blessed to have this opportunity and I’m thankful for the people of Chicago for trusting me with their safety,” he said.

Johnson was also joined by Lightfoot, who just Wednesday was downplaying reports that Johnson would announce his departure this week.

“I am privileged to call her now my friend, and also my boss,” Johnson said of the mayor.

Johnson “showed this city over and over again, but particularly in that act, that he loves this city and he will fight for our values no matter what,” Lightfoot said.

“I have personally witnessed the tender and heartfelt way he has comforted grieving widows and family members,” she said, noting that Johnson joined a march along the Dan Ryan Expressway to protest gun violence.

Johnson pledged to “help with the transition to the new superintendent however possible.”

His retirement comes as the city’s Office of the Inspector General is investigating an incident from last month in which Johnson was found asleep in his car near his Bridgeport home. He said he neglected to take a prescribed medication and became lightheaded before he decided to pull over, but Lightfoot said he told her that he also had “a couple of drinks” at dinner before driving home.

But any cloud hanging over his departure was dismissed by Johnson.

“My glass is always three-fourths full. I choose to focus on the positive things,” he said. “I’m so at peace, mentally, with everything.”

Johnson again noted that a recent trip to London to watch the Chicago Bears was one of the catalysts for his decision. He got to spend more time with his family than he had in several years.

“I felt like a normal person again, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that,” he said.

His time at the helm of the CPD has been arduous, and he often worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

He added that he first began thinking of retirement in September after spending time with the widows of three CPD officers who were killed in the line of duty in recent years — officers Conrad Gary, Eduardo Marmolejo and Samuel Jimenez.

Johnson oversaw the department during a time marked by a host of changes spurred almost entirely by the release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.

In fact, it was the video that launched Johnson to the top of second-largest police department in the country despite him not applying for the job.

At the lectern Thursday, Johnson said the McDonald shooting “forever changed Chicago.”

Emanuel rejected the three superintendent recommendations from Lightfoot, then the president of the Chicago Police Board, and opted to offer the job to Johnson in an effort to quell tensions between the CPD and the city’s African American communities and boost officer morale.

“Rahm Emanuel saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” Johnson said Thursday.

In 2017, Lightfoot said Johnson “walked into probably one of the worst circumstances any superintendent has walked into, maybe in the history of the department.”

In the first year of Johnson’s leadership, 2016, the number of murders reached 784, a level not seen since the mid-90s, though they’ve since dropped precipitously to 578 last year. The CPD was investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice, which ultimately led to a federal consent decree, entered earlier this year, that will ensure departmental reforms. Before the decree was entered, the department made changes to its use-of-force policy to focus more on de-escalation and preserving the “sanctity of life.”

Johnson, who grew up in the Cabrini-Green housing project on the Near North Side, joined the department in 1988 and was eventually promoted to commander of the Gresham District on the South Side. Johnson’s elder son, Daniel, is a CPD officer in the same district.

Under his predecessor, Supt. Garry McCarthy, who was ousted in the wake of the McDonald video release, Johnson served as the chief of patrol. Before a judge ordered the now infamous dashcam video be released, Johnson was among the group of department leadership who saw it and he raised no objections, according to an OIG report made public in October.

Under Johnson’s leadership, the CPD has invested heavily in tech-based crimefighting strategies, including the equipping of every patrol officer with a body-worn camera.

The utilization of ShotSpotter — sensors that pick up the sound of gunfire that police can respond to without someone calling 911 — has greatly expanded in recent years.

The CPD has also worked with the University of Chicago Crime Lab to implement Strategic Decision Support Centers in districts across the city, allowing police and data analysts to monitor and respond to criminal activity and trends in real time. The centers have been credited with helping drive down shootings in some of the most historically violent parts of the city.

But while progress has been made during Johnson’s tenure as superintendent, Chicago’s scourge of shootings has persisted.

Through the end of October, the CPD had recorded 424 murders in 2019, down from 489 during the same time period in 2018, according to city crime stats.

Johnson’s health has also become a focal point on several occasions. In January 2017, he fell ill while at a news conference with Emanuel in Englewood. Later that day, he disclosed he was diagnosed with glomerulonephritis, a kidney condition, when he was 25 years old.

Johnson later underwent a successful kidney transplant with his son. Earlier this year, he was hospitalized with a blood clot.

Besides dealing with his own health concerns, Johnson has also had to act as consoler on far more occasions than he would like. Several Chicago police officers have been killed, most in the line of duty, including Johnson’s friend, Cmdr. Paul Bauer. Several more took their own lives in the past 3½ years.

In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times after his announcement, Johnson was asked what his worst day on the job was.

“When the Chief of Patrol came and told me that Paul Bauer got shot in the head,” Johnson said. “It was a senseless thing.”

“When Samuel Jimenez was killed at Mercy Hospital, I still remember where I was,” he added. “And then probably the most shocking one was [Eduardo] Marmolejo and [Conrad] Gary getting struck by that train.”

The leadership of the Fraternal Order of Police — the union representing rank-and-file officers — has been resistant to the department’s reform efforts under Johnson.

FOP President Kevin Graham said in a statement Thursday: “Although the FOP and the Superintendent have had disagreements over the years we wish him well in his retirement and we will look forward to getting a contract done with the next Superintendent.”

In October, the FOP’s board of directors went so far as to issue a no confidence vote in Johnson after he announced he would not be attending President Donald Trump’s speech to the International Association of Chiefs of Police convention at McCormick Place.

In the speech, Trump lambasted Johnson, saying: “People like Johnson want to put criminals and illegal aliens before the citizens of Chicago … To me, those values are a disgrace.”

In a news conference shortly after Trump’s speech, Johnson said the president’s criticism “tells me I’m doing the right thing.”

Trump has used Chicago as a political punching bag since he first stepped into the political realm. The superintendent theorized Thursday that the near constant attacks on the city were due, almost entirely, to the fact that high-profile Democrats have roots in Chicago.

“I think that all that rhetoric started with certain folks not particularly liking former President Obama and former Mayor Rahm Emanuel,” Johnson said.

Like Lightfoot, state and local leaders were also quick to heap praise on the outgoing superintendent.

At an unrelated press conference on Thursday morning, Gov. J.B. Pritzker thanked Johnson for his service to the city — and vowed to support his replacement.

“Let me just say that Eddie Johnson has served this state and this city with honor. I think we should all take a moment to thank him for his service. He really has stepped in at a moment when Chicago really needed him.”

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx issued a statement Thursday praising Johnson for “his commitment to the brave women and men of the Chicago Police Department and the City of Chicago.”

“This work calls for tremendous sacrifice, and I am grateful for Superintendent Johnson’s collaborative partnership and mutual respect as we worked to increase public safety and end the cycle of violence in our communities,” she added.